Developing BC’s Mighty Structures

David Podmore got the call at 4:30 a.m. The man who’d been his mentor, his closest colleague, and his friend for 33 years was dead. The news stalled him, but only briefly. Then he got up to meet the day. At the news conference that morning, held a year ago now in a standard-issue meeting room at BC Place, Podmore spoke briefly about Jack Poole, his voice shadowed, hesitant, then went on to the official announcement: the building’s roof would be replaced with a new, retractable model at a cost of $458 million. “It will be ready and shiny and polished up by the Grey Cup in 2011,” promised Podmore, who had been named chair of B.C. Pavilion Corp. a few months earlier to figure out what to do about the aging arena.

“It was a tough day,” he remembers now. “I saw Jack the night before, just a few hours before he passed away. We knew he was going, but it was a real surprise when I got the call. He had been in a great mood.” He contemplated cancelling the announcement, then thought, as he often has, “What would Jack do?” And he knew he had to go through with it. This was an important event; all kinds of people were counting on him.

Over the next few days, Podmore prepared for Poole’s A-list funeral, where he read out a letter from Jack’s wife, Darlene, helped carry the coffin, and took on part of the media-scrumming tasks. At the same time, he was writing op-ed pieces for the newspapers, giving public interviews and private reassurances about the cost of the roof and the choice of contractor. Difficult, yes, but the inevitable outcome of two major roles he’s had throughout his career: Mr. Fixit for Premier Gordon Campbell when there’s a major project to be wrassled; and Faithful Helmsman for the more flamboyant, headline-grabbing Poole.

Podmore has racked up his string of major projects over three decades quietly. But nobody can stay invisible forever. In 2007, the premier picked him to take over final construction of the convention-centre expansion, at the time wildly over budget. Then he was put in charge of figuring out what to do with BC Place, the other big city asset overseen by the Crown corporation PavCo. Now it’s up to Podmore to keep the stadium off the rocks—a considerable risk not, surprisingly, because of the roof replacement itself (though that’s an engineering job complex enough that Podmore went to Stuttgart in July just to inspect the progress on the design) but because of the other part of the roof problem. In the background, Podmore is quietly making sure that the development needed to pay the bill—the lavish, much-debated new Las Vegas-style casino and double hotels that are supposed to be built on the western edge of BC Place—gets to a public hearing by late this year. (The process usually takes two years.) Once it’s approved, he’s aiming to get it in the ground by early next year and to have the Lions and Whitecaps in the stadium by later in 2011.

Ostensibly, it’s up to the casino developer, Paragon, to handle the project, but Podmore isn’t leaving anything to chance. He’s hired Brent MacGregor, the former deputy city manager, to monitor the process. MacGregor sits in on every meeting with city planners and Paragon architects and is intimately familiar with our city’s history of controversy over casinos, its deep suspicion of big projects, and the resentment felt in some quarters at the way the previous NPA council exempted PavCo from contributing to community benefits. (The NPA argued the roof itself was a community benefit.)

If anyone can steer the middle course, it’s Podmore. Throughout his career, he’s managed to earn the admiration of people on both right and left. “He’s a significant shaper of the city,” says Ken Dobell, the former deputy premier and long-time Campbell adviser who has worked with Podmore on several projects. “And he’s a big player.” At the B.C. Federation of Labour, president Jim Sinclair has only good things to say about the man who has headed the country’s only union-

pension-fund-backed construction company for 30 years. “He’s thoughtful and reflective in what’s necessary to be done,” says Sinclair over lunch across from his office in Collingwood Village, a complex of towers, townhouses, and offices Podmore built around the Joyce SkyTrain station in the 1990s. “The key to this industry is being ahead of the game,” Sinclair says. “And David always is.”

Podmore is the classic West Side boomer kid. He grew up in Kerrisdale (where he lives now, two doors down from Councillor Suzanne Anton); at Prince of Wales secondary he was on student council with the smart girl a couple of grades ahead of him, Kim Campbell. He went on to engineering at UBC, but after taking a course in planning, he switched to that. He paid his way with scholarships from Trans Mountain Pipeline, where his father had worked as a machinist and then supervisor, and with summer work for the company on pipeline-maintenance jobs in the bush.

For grad school, he went to Edmonton, then one of the fastest-growing cities in Canada and wildly progressive. After he finished his master’s in 1974, he joined a throng of bright young people enlisted to work at Edmonton’s City Hall. Podmore was renowned for having even more energy than the rest. Tom Fletcher, who went on to Vancouver city planning, remembers that Podmore would work 50- or 60-hour weeks, then take off for his favourite camping spots. When he wasn’t working or playing hard, he’d be building things at the house he’d bought in Fort Saskatchewan for the family he’d started with his wife Janice.

Having headed up Edmonton’s massive expansion of its city boundaries, Podmore was on his way to becoming a senior city bureaucrat. Then, in 1980, he got a phone call from Alvin Narod. Premier Bill Bennett had asked the big-name developer to assemble land and build a stadium on the fringe of Vancouver’s downtown for Expo 86. Narod was looking for someone to actually carry out the project. Podmore came down for the interview, accepted the job, and bought a house in Richmond all in one weekend.

His work on the Expo lands is evident still. His early plans for dense residential dotted with parks have survived more or less intact. But his work there also gave him entrance into the club of Expo 86 graduates, propelling him into the big leagues. After the fair, Canaccord president Peter Brown, who had been the chair of Expo’s finance committee, suggested he get in touch with Jack Poole.

 Poole’s Daon Developments had made him the country’s hottest builder until a spectacular flame-out during the high-interest, high-debt early 1980s. When Podmore went to work with him, Poole was still trying to salvage Daon with the help of a massive investment from Bell Canada Enterprises. The two stayed there until 1989, during which time they worked on a scheme to buy the Expo lands with private investment money. They realized that union pension funds could be a source of capital for big development plays, especially during a recession when money from other sources was tight. (In the end, Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka-shing and his company, Concord Pacific, was the successful bidder.)

Their genius moment came when they devised a solution for then-Vancouver mayor Gordon Campbell’s biggest political calamity of the day: a housing crisis generated by major demolitions in Kerrisdale and a general shortage of inexpensive housing in the city. With assistance from then B.C. Federation of Labour president Ken Georgetti, Poole and Podmore suggested forming a company that would build affordable housing, some to buy, some to rent, using money from union pensions and business investors, along with leased land from the city. Vancouver Land Corporation (VLC)—the company that would eventually become Concert Properties—was born. (The unions later wound up buying out the capitalists.) Campbell, who tends to place enormous faith in a small group of trusted people, went for it.

The company made headlines in the early years. Its radical plan to construct 350-square-foot micro-suites at a building called the Drake provoked an uproar. A more serious charge was that, although the company got free long-term leases on city land to build affordable housing, it didn’t build as much or as cheaply as promised. Podmore, always ready with a reasonable-sounding comment, deflected a full storm. Was it a good deal for Van­couver? Absolutely, says Georgetti, who as president now of the Canadian Labour Congress works with other pension-funded companies around the world. “It’s been a huge winner. Everyone got what was expected. We got a good company that has produced hundreds of thousands of hours of union work. And we’re making good money for retired people all over B.C.” The company has built 10,000 homes, amassed $1.4 billion in assets, and expanded to Ontario.

Poole stepped aside in 1992, as he’d promised, for Podmore. But he stayed on as chair, and the two worked in tandem for years on both Concert and any other little thing that needed doing. Over the years, the company built the Collingwood development, a block of rental townhouses on Boundary, two rental apartments in the southeast corner of Vancouver, and the blocks of new housing at Arbutus Walk; collected industrial and commercial properties; established a well-run property-management arm; and moved into building seniors’ residences, including the luxurious O’Keefe in the Arbutus development. Podmore says he learned a lot along the way. One was how not to lose his temper—back in the day, his reddening face would warn of a coming tempest. Another was how to do what Poole did. “He had a big influence on me. He knew how to really simplify things. It was amazing how quickly he could cut to the core of the problem.”

 After Poole was named to head up the Olympic bid shortly after Campbell was elected premier, the two got drawn into 2010 activities. When newly elected mayor Larry Campbell kept to an election promise to hold a referendum, it was Podmore who headed up the Yes committee, calling on his extensive network. But his first loyalty was to Concert. That loyalty is one key to his longevity in a charged political climate. When unions complained about his political donations to Campbell’s B.C. Liberals, he established a policy that the company would buy a table at fundraising dinners for both the premier and the leader of the opposition. And Concert showed up on the most recent list of donors to union-friendly Vision Vancouver with a healthy $8,000 contribution.

It’s not just friends who note that he places a high value on loyalty, his own and others’. So do those who have run afoul of him. “If you ever crossed him, you were fucked,” says a former business colleague who disappointed Podmore and has been politely cut off. “He’s one of the most standup guys I know,” says Ward McAllister, another of the city’s top developers. The two met when Podmore gave talks to budding UBC commerce students, including McAllister. In keeping with the development industry’s offspring-employment exchange, McAllister gave Podmore’s daughter Jennifer one of her early jobs. (Jennifer, one of four siblings, is now a real-estate sales analyst at Deloitte & Touche.) “He’s got a particular style ,” adds McAllister. “I’ve heard he’s called the Trojan horse. He has a terrific way of disarming people and then he negotiates a very hard bargain.”

Podmore has had his share of failures. After the unsuccessful attempt to buy the Expo lands, Concert pitched casino magnate Steve Wynn on building a casino, convention centre, and hotel on port land east of Canada Place. In the face of massive public opposition, the NDP government nixed the idea of a waterfront casino; then, after Concert won the bid for a revised convention centre/hotel on the same site, NDP acting premier Dan Miller cancelled the billion-dollar project, along with an already-placed steel contract.

Concert lost the bid to build Woodward’s. And it was eliminated from bidding on the Olympic Village because some felt Poole’s close involvement with VANOC would lead to a conflict of interest. That kind of conflict, now attached to Podmore, continues to limit Concert’s ability to bid on major projects. And the plan Podmore concocted to put the Vancouver Art Gallery at the old Plaza of Nations site in Northeast False Creek went through two years of agonizing review only to be judged unworkable.

 But his missteps have never shaken the opinion of those who value his reliability. As Dobell puts it, “He just gets things done.” This holds true not just in business. He works on many community-minded boards—he’s been a slave, friends say, for B.C. Children’s Hospital. It’s a small way of giving back, says Podmore, who spent six months at VGH when he was a baby, first with an intestinal problem, then with a staph infection.

Some think Poole was the driver in their long partnership and Podmore will fade away without his mentor; others that Podmore saved Poole from himself all those years. In any case, Podmore is now on his own. And he’s as busy as ever. He’s moving Concert into bidding on infrastructure projects. He wants to try a housing project with micro-suites, something even more compact than the Drake. And after BC Place is complete, he’s eyeing—can it really be?—another convention-centre expansion.

“We’re fully booked to 2013,” he says, “and we have bookings up to 2023.” Back in the ’90s, after he lost out on the land east of Canada Place, he said he wasn’t giving up on the location. Some things just take a little longer to fix. VM

More on real estate and land development:

Vancouver Special, By Jesse Spencer. Too new to knock down but too ugly to love, Vancouver Specials pose a renovation dilemma. Solution: eliminate the awkward boxiness while finding ways to keep the DNA of the original

Pie In The Sky, By Fiona Morrow. Vancouver, a wide-open city of mountains and hi-rises